Back in 2007, Nicolas Cage made headlines for throwing down $276,000 for a 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skull (a close relative of the famed T-Rex); at that time, it was the largest dinosaur skull ever auctioned. The actor, who outbid fellow thespian Leonardo DiCaprio on the skull, was apparently excited to add the huge addition to his much smaller collection of trilobite fossils. 

Turns out Cage may have saved DiCaprio from a gigantic headache involving a major fossil smuggling operation and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division. 

Last year, Eric Prokopi — a self-described “commercial paleontologist” — pleaded guilty to illegally importing fossils from Mongolia and China, a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to 17 years. Since then, ICE has been tracking down fossils sold by Prokopi and returning them to Mongolia. Unfortunately for Cage, this includes his Tyrannosaurus skull. 

“Nicolas Cage’s specimen came from Prokopi,” David Herskowitz, who was the director of IM Chait’s natural history department at the time of the auction, told the UK Telegraph.

Prokopi likely smuggled Cage's dino skull out of the Gobi desert, one of the richest deposits of fossils in the world. Unfortunately, owing to its massive size, the desert is also notoriously difficult to police. With everyone from Hollywood heavyweights to collectors on EBay driving up the value of genuine fossils, the Gobi has become "irresistible to black-market dealers."

"By returning this dinosaur, we right a great wrong," John Morton, director of ICE, said of a separate incident involving nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton reclaimed from Prokopi. "This dinosaur skeleton belongs in Mongolia, not on the black market."

In an interview with the Telegraph, Herskowitz said that while there's a chance Cage's dino skull might be seized by ICE, he does not think it likely. And there's always the likely lawsuit that would follow if the government did become involved. 

"I always thought if Eric Prokopi could afford to retain good lawyers he'd have won, but he ran out of money. The question concerning the legality of bringing fossils out of Mongolia was never settled," he said.

Unfortunately, the black market for dinosaur bones will continue to grow as long as there's demand. Case in point, an auction later this month for a complete 55-feet long, 19-feet tall Diplodocus skeleton that's expected to fetch more than $1 million. 

"There are probably about six of these in the great museums of the world, including in Pittsburgh and Washington," natural history expert and author Errol Fuller told the UK Metro. "You are talking about a very rare item indeed."

Despite this one being a legit dino fossil sourced from the U.S., expect Nicolas Cage to take a pass. 

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Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Will Nicolas Cage lose his prized Tyrannosaurus skull?
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division may reclaim the auctioned skull as part of an investigation into a major fossil smuggling ring.